Jacopo Palma il Giovane
Guardian Angels

Circa 1619
Oil on canvas
Church of Santa Maria Assunta ("I Gesuiti"), Venice

In the artist's time there was a growing emphasis on the role of "guardian angels," who counseled the humans assigned to them on the way to salvation. The iconography for this belief grew out of that taken from the Book of Tobit, in which the Archangel Raphael shows Tobias how to dispel demons and cure blindness, a more spiritual kind of guidance replacing one more related to solving problems in this world.

In this case, Palma pictures five angels counseling their charges. The group in the lower left is clearly drawn from the Book of Tobit. The angel tells the boy how to use the fish in his hand to cure blindness and dispel demons. The dog is also from the story.

In the foreground, the angel in red holds a staff, which is sometimes an attribute of Raphael, but otherwise he and the other three are just generic guardian angels. The two who stand on the ground counsel young people, and the two in the sky carry their charges, now adults, to Heaven.

The gestures of the angels are consistent with Hammond's observation that the focus on guardian angels in post-Reformation Catholicism arose from the debate with Protestants over free will: "The angel, by being a guide towards salvation but not ultimately able to force a person to take the correct path, is an excellent metaphor for the Catholic belief in self determined election" (Hammond, 84).

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Photographed at the church by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.